NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Battered by an unexpected Bush landslide, Sen. John McCain conceded defeat last night in South Carolina's hotly contested Republican primary by turning on his rival with some of his harshest language of the campaign.
Clearly bitter at his defeat, which he ascribed in large measure to a barrage of negative advertising directed at him by Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his backers, the Arizona senator promised to battle on. He quickly departed South Carolina for Michigan, which will hold its GOP primary Tuesday.
McCain emerged defiant and combative in defeat, describing the choice between himself and Bush in his concession speech as a choice between "experience and pretense."
It was a concession speech in name only. McCain threw a fusillade of punches at the rival whom his campaign has accused of trying to win at any cost -- and of besmirching the battle for the Republican presidential nomination in the process.
He also seemed angry at Bush's appropriation in South Carolina of McCain's signature reformist message -- implying that the governor was simply engaged in sloganeering.
"My friends, I say to you, I'm a uniter, not divider," said McCain as he addressed a small but crusty band of supporters. "I don't just say it, I live it. I am a real reformer. I don't just say it; I live it."
Barely able to conceal his anger at the defeat, he said, "As this campaign moves forward, a clear choice will be offered. A choice between my optimistic and welcoming conservatism, and the negative message of fear a choice between a record of reform and an empty slogan of reform."
Struggling to come to grips with the day's result, he eagerly challenged Bush to another round of political combat and vowed to "fight with every ounce of strength I have" in coming primaries, starting with Michigan and his home state of Arizona, which also holds a primary Tuesday.
Smoke and lights
McCain entered the room where his supporters had gathered to special effects -- smoke, flashing lights and the theme from the movie "Star Wars" -- and seemed determined to keep up the enthusiasm of a campaign that has been fueled by rebel excitement.
"Aren't you proud of the campaign you just ran?" he asked the crowd. "Aren't you proud?"
As the crowd applauded and chanted "Go, McCain!" he continued in that upbeat mode.
"Well, my friends, you don't have to win every skirmish to win a war or a crusade, and although we fell a little short tonight, our crusade grows stronger."
He said he had called Bush to congratulate him on his victory and wished him a good night's rest, then added: "He's going to need it, my friends, for we have just begun to fight."
Negative ads eschewed
He said he would continue to forgo negative campaigning, which he swore off here after a television ad boomeranged on him -- the one in which he suggested a comparison between Bush and President Clinton.
"I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land," he said. "I want the presidency in the best way, not the worst way."
Almost from the moment the wheels on the McCain campaign plane touched down in South Carolina earlier this month, the campaign has accused Bush of wanting to win any way he could.
As he spoke of moving on, his supporters hoped the huge wave of momentum carrying the campaign to this point had not finally broken along the South Carolina coast.
`Tomahawks in the air'
"There were a thousand tomahawks in the air," political director John Weaver said earlier. "It's hard to fight off every one of those."
Taped techno-music rattled against the cinder block in Exhibit Hall A1 in the convention center here as supporters nursed drinks and plates of buffalo wings and talked boldly of fighting harder in Michigan.
But the sense of disappointment was palpable. A supporter hugged tightly to his chest a copy of "Faith of My Fathers," McCain's account of the wartime experiences of himself, his father and his grandfather. Another man dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief.
Earlier in the day, with exit polls signaling the McCain loss in the afternoon, the senator maintained a cool composure, watching a basketball game in his suite as his children played nearby.
On to Michigan
McCain aides, meanwhile, said the Bush message that won him overwhelming support from conservative Christians may not go over as well in Michigan, and may well backfire there. They seemed especially intent on publicizing Bush's visit to Bob Jones University in South Carolina, a school that bans interracial dating and posts anti-Catholic rhetoric on its Web site.
"I don't know whether he can run as a Dixiecrat in Michigan, but we'll find out," Weaver said, adding that McCain supporters would inform voters in Michigan's large Catholic population about Bush's appearance at Bob Jones.
The campaign thought it had addressed some of McCain's weakness among conservative Christians when one of their own, Gary L. Bauer, endorsed the senator last week. But Bauer's political embrace, which included his vouching for the candidate's anti-abortion credentials, produced little support from conservatives.
Despite last night's on-stage optimism, a mood of resignation had descended on this campaign days ago. What had begun with exuberant hopefulness and a message of insurgent reform here after McCain's New Hampshire landslide quickly gave way to what at times sounded like a Sunday school lesson against negative campaigns.
Along the way, he seemed to lose some focus. He came out of New Hampshire crowing about an unbeatable agenda. By the end, he was selling himself as the man who played fair.
Pub Date: 2/20/00